What is the Relationship Between Ethics and Political Science?

Ethics deals with morality and formulates rules which should influence the behaviour of man while living in society. It investigates the Tightness or wrongness of man’s conduct and prescribes ideals to which he would direct his efforts.

The line of demarcation between Political Science and Ethics is quite distinct.

Though both Political Science and Ethics aim at the noble and righteous life of man, yet the former is primarily concerned with the political governance of man whereas the latter refers to man’s conduct and morality; that is, whereas Political Science deals with political order, Ethics deals with moral order. Ethics also judges man’s conduct and in the last resort touches on what the conduct ought to be. Political Science has nothing to do with it.

The laws of the State prescribe only the way of life and are concerned with the external actions of man. Moral laws prescribe absolute standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, but the laws of the State follow standard of expediency. What a law prohibits may not be an immoral act. Finally, Political Science is concerned with man as a citizen. Ethics is concerned with man as a man and, as such, it is prior to Political Science.


But a political idea cannot be divorced from an ethical idea. Man can only pursue his moral ends while living in the State. Aristotle rightly said that a good citizen is possible in a good State and that a bad State makes bad citizens.

He further maintained that while the State comes into existence for the sake of life, it continues to exist for the sake of good life. Good life is the end of the State and all political problems revolve around it. What is morally wrong cannot be politically right, because there cannot be a good State where wrong ethical ideals prevail.

So close is the relation between Political Science and Ethics that Plato and Aristotle hardly distinguished between the two? The Greek philosophers, in fact, laid more stress on the moral side of the State. Plato’s Republic is as much a study in Ethics as it is in Political Science.

Machiavelli was the first to distinguish between the two and he made Political Science independent of Ethics. He also differentiated between public morality and private morality. Hobbes, an English philosopher, followed Machiavelli in his arguments and reasonings. Kant, on the other hand, said, “True politics cannot take a single step forward unless it has first done homage to morals.”


The modern view is rather conflicting. The concept of Scientific Relativism, which has a Germanic origin94 and has now taken firm roots in the United States, has created complete dichotomy between Political Science and Ethics. It is asserted that introduction of value-judgments in political analysis impedes scientific objectivity and makes the discipline and any inquiry into its processes speculative.

Stuart Rice, in his Quantitative Methods in Politics, blamed social scientists for having set their task as “the creation of a science of moral ends” which involved a contradiction in terms. He called for a clear distinction between science and philosophy.

Karl Llewellyn made an explicit statement when he emphasised the separation of the realms of Is and Ought and the inability of science to teach us where to go.

Of values, he said, “As we move into these value- judgments we desert entirely the solid sphere of objective observation, of possible agreement among all normal trained observers and enter into the airy sphere of individual ideals and subjectivity.”


He added that in order to prove a value one must refer to another, more general value and that, in the last analysis, “the end which is sought must be posited or assumed. It cannot be arrived at by scientific procedure.”

R.M. Maclver supports Stuart Rice and says, “Science itself tells us nothing, just nothing about the way we should act, and the ends we should seek.” At the round-table “Beyond Relativism in Political Theory,” held at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, December, 1946, “general agreement on the logical separation of Is and Ought was expressed at the outset.”

In 1936, Harold D. Lasswell brought out his Polities’. Who Gets, What, When and how which was a thesis on Scientific Method and Value Relativism?

In a later book, he made Political Science “a value-free Science” and defined it “as an empirical discipline, (as) the study of the shaping and sharing of power” and “a political act (as) one performed in power perspectives.”

Power, rule, authority or political influence, thus, became the central organising idea of the subject of Political Science and its scope was riveted upon it.

But not all the twentieth century thinkers subscribe to this point of view. There are some who believe that Scientific Method can deal with values as precisely as with facts. According to Alfred Weber, all scientific activity is “entirely tied to values.”

The French philosopher, Jacques Maritan, calls for a reinclusion of metaphysics in the realm of Political Science. Metaphysics, he maintains, wrongly ousted from science by the Scientific Method is science in the ampler sense.

Likewise, Eric Voegelin, in his book, The New Science of Politics, severely refutes the argument that “Science” can only apply to Scientific Method.

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He calls for a “restoration” of Political Science, or for its “retheorization”, by reviving the attempts made by the Greek philosophers and the medieval Christian scholars to provide an ontological description of the order of values, “The theoretical orientation of man in his world, the great instrument for man’s understanding of his own position in the universe.”

In a paper submitted to ‘the UNESCO project “Methods in Political Science”, Thomas I. Cook observed, “I urge, finally, that the most glaring need of the social sciences today is to relate ethical concepts, in their general outline long discovered and scientifically verified, at once to the methods and results of modem sociological investigation, to determine the proper sphere of the methods; to winnow and relate in systems, the results add here that in political science this need is specially obvious.”

This approach seemed to him the only one which promised an effectively unified system of Social Sciences “within which political science may receive a definable place, fulfill an intelligent role, possess clear scope and function, and consequently develop appropriate methods and relevant special techniques.”

When the end of the State is to create that atmosphere in which man can reach the full stature of his personality, the proper sphere of functions of the State cannot be determined without moral considerations.

The doctrine of International legal values or International ethics cements the principles of International Law and their binding nature. Professor Ivor Brown says, “Politics is but ethics writ large.

Ethical theory is incomplete without political theory, because man is an associated creature and cannot live fully in isolation; political theory is idle without ethical theory because its study and its results depend fundamentally on our scheme of moral values, our conceptions of right and wrong.”

Moreover, Political Science is concerned with what the State ought to be. “The great question”, in the words of Lord Acton, “is to discover, not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe.”

A lasting contribution to Political Science is M.K Gandhi’s plea for spiritualising politics. “There are no politics,” said Gandhi, “devoid of religion”, and Gandhi’s religion consisted in truth and love.

Wherever there was truth and love, there was non-violence, non-attachment and, thus, even-mindedness, i.e., action without the desire for results Gandhi, in brief, desired to moralise man and society. He, then, emphasised that moral means must be adopted to achieve desirable results. As the seed, so is the tree, Gandhi declared.

The justification of what the State does is to be sought in the moral values it helps us to realise and it ought to provide for attaining the ideal end; the highest goal of man’s life. It means that Political Science is conditioned by Ethics. But the main body of material with which the two disciplines deal is distinct.

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